Bigos

Below is an article about the Polish dish known as Bigos:

BIGOS

When one mentions hunter’s stew, dishes such as Burgoo, or Bruinswick Stew usually comes to mind. But there is one hunter’s stew that dates back even further. I am referring to Bigos, which is a dish that originated in the Eastern European countries of Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and the Ukraine.

The dish dates back to the medieval era and can trace its roots to fourteenth century Poland. The ironic thing is that the dish’s originator was not Polish. In fact, his name was Jogaila, a Lithuanian Grand Duke who became the Polish king Władysław Jagiełło in 1385. He had created the dish – namely a hunter’s stew – for his guests at a hunting party, after he had ascended the Polish throne. The name “bigos” allegedly means “confusion”, “big mess” or “trouble” in Polish. However, Polish linguists trace the word “bigos” to a German origin. The PWN Dictionary of Foreign Words speculates that it derives from the past participle begossen of a German verb that means “to douse”. And Bigos was usually doused with wine in earlier years.

Bigos usually consists of white cabbage, sauerkraut, various cuts of meat, tomatoes, honey and mushrooms. For those who do not eat meat or do not have any available, Bigos can be prepared without it. And it can be prepared without the white cabbage. But sauerkraut is absolutely essential. The type of meat found in Bigos can be smoked pork, ham, bacon, sausage, veal and beef. However, since Bigos is a hunter’s stew, meats such as venison, rabbit or other game can usually be found, as well. The stew is usually seasoned with pepper, caraway, bay leaf, marjoram, dried or smoked plums, pimenta, juniper berries and red wine. Bigos is usually served with mashed potatoes or rye bread.

Below is a recipe for Bigos from the Simplyrecipe.com website:

Bigos

Ingredients

1 ounce dried porcini or other wild mushrooms
2 Tbsp bacon fat or vegetable oil
2 pounds pork shoulder
1 large onion, chopped
1 head cabbage (regular, not savoy or red), chopped
1 1/2 pounds mixed fresh mushrooms
1-2 pounds kielbasa or other smoked sausage
1 smoked ham hock
1 pound fresh Polish sausage (optional)
1 25-ounce jar of fresh sauerkraut (we recommend Bubbies, which you may be able to find in the refrigerated section of your local supermarket)
1 bottle of pilsner or lager beer
1 Tbsp juniper berries (optional)
1 Tbsp black peppercorns
1 Tbsp caraway seeds
2 Tbsp dried marjoram
Salt
20 prunes, sliced in half (optional)
2 Tbsp tomato paste (optional)
1 15-ounce can tomato sauce (optional)
1-2 Tbsp mustard or horseradish (optional)

Preparation

Pour hot tap water over the dried mushrooms and submerge them for 20-40 minutes, or until soft. Grind or crush the juniper berries and black peppercorns roughly; you don’t want a powder. Cut the pork shoulder into large chunks, about 2 inches. Cut the sausages into similar-sized chunks. Drain the sauerkraut and set aside. Clean off any dirt from the mushrooms and cut them into large pieces; leave small ones whole.

Heat the bacon fat or vegetable oil in a large lidded pot for a minute or two. Working in batches if necessary, brown the pork shoulder over medium-high heat. Do not crowd the pan. Set the browned meat aside.

Put the onion and fresh cabbage into the pot and sauté for a few minutes, stirring often, until the cabbage is soft. Sprinkle a little salt over them. The vegetables will give off plenty of water, and when they do, use a wooden spoon to scrape any browned bits off the bottom of the pot. If you are making the tomato-based version, add the tomato paste here. Once the pot is clean and the cabbage and onions soft, remove from the pot and set aside with the pork shoulder.

Add the mushrooms and cook them without any additional oil, stirring often, until they release their water. Once they do, sprinkle a little salt on the mushrooms. When the water is nearly all gone, add back the pork shoulder, the cabbage-and-onion mixture, and then everything else except the prunes. Add the beer, if using, or the tomato sauce if you’re making the tomato-based version. Stir well to combine.

You should not have enough liquid to submerge everything. That’s good: Bigos is a “dry” stew, and besides, the ingredients will give off more liquid as they cook. Bring everything to a simmer, cover the pot and cook gently for at least 2 hours.

Bigos is better the longer it cooks, but you can eat it once the ham hock falls apart. Check at 2 hours, and then every 30 minutes after that. When the hock is tender, fish it out and pull off the meat and fat from the bones Discard the bones and the fat, then chop the meat roughly and return to the pot. Add the prunes and cook until they are tender, at least 30 more minutes.

Bigos is best served simply, with rye bread and a beer. If you want a little kick, add the mustard or horseradish right before you eat it. Bigos improves with age, too, which is why this recipe makes so much: Your leftovers will be even better than the stew was on the first day.

“POLDARK” (1996) Review

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“POLDARK” (1996) Review

Over seventy years ago marked the publication of author Winston Graham’s first entry in his novel series about a former British Army officer who had served in the American Revolution and his life experiences following his return to home in Cornwall. The BBC aired a successful television series that was based upon Graham’s first seven novels in 1975 and 1977.

Four years after the publication of his seventh novel, Graham concluded his literary series with five more between 1981 and 2002. In 1996, the HTV channel produced a pilot episode, which proved to be an adaptation of Graham’s eighth novel,“The Stranger from the Sea”. HTV had hoped this television movie would prove to be the first of a continuing adaptation of the 1981 novel and the remaining four. Unfortunately, fans protested against the casting of new performers in the lead roles of Ross Poldark and Demelza Carne Poldark. Fifty members of the Poldark Appreciation Society marched in full 18th-century costumes to picket HTV’s headquarters in Bristol, England. When Graham admitted that he preferred the new film to the original television series from the 1970s, he found himself cold-shouldered by the Society of which he was president. Needless to say, the television film, also titled “POLDARK”, proved to be a ratings flop and the network dropped all plans for an adaptation of Graham’s later novels.

I first learned about “POLDARK” and its literary source, “The Stranger from the Sea” from the ELLEN AND JIM HAVE A BLOG, TWO website. Already familiar with the 1970s series, I decided to check out this movie via Netflix. Set between 1810 and 1811 (eleven to twelve years after the 70s series’ conclusion), the plot revolved around the Poldark family’s initial encounter with a young smuggler named Stephen Carrington, while they awaited the return of patriarch Ross Poldark from his Parliamentary duties in London. I realize that this summary seems rather simple, but it was for a good reason. Like all narratives, “POLDARK” featured a good number of subplots. But for the likes of me, I found it difficult to pinpoint a main narrative for this particular plot after watching thirty minutes of the film. I was able to detect various subplots in this production:

*Ross Poldark’s political mission regarding the possible end of the Peninsular War
*Demelza Carne Poldark’s frustration over her husband’s absence from home
*The arrival of smuggler Stephen Carrington in Cornwall, whose presence will have an impact upon others
*Clowance Polark’s romantic involvement both Carrington and Lord Edward Fitzmaurice, whom she met in London
*Jeremy Poldark, Carrington and Ben Carter’s smuggling operation
*Jeremy’s attraction to the well-born Cuby Trevanion
*Widower George Warleggan’s courtship of Lady Harriet
*Clash between the Poldarks and Warleggan over Wheal Leisure (mine)

This is a lot for a 102 minute television movie. If the HTV network really wanted to continue the “POLDARK” series with episodes that are adaptations of Graham’s last five novels, it should NOT have adapted all of “The Stranger from the Sea”in the space of 102 minutes. Another problem I had with the movie’s narrative is that it resumed the “Poldark” saga without any recollections or flashbacks on what previously happened during the 1975-1977 series. I would have dismissed this if the 1996 movie had aired less than a year after the last episode of the original series. But it aired nineteen (19) years after the original series’ last episode. Nineteen years. I think some narrative or recollection of what happened in the 1970s series should have been given before the story could continue.

On the other hand, I feel that the production had more or less found its footing some twenty or thirty minutes into the production. I actually found myself investing in the movie’s subplot – especially those that involved Jeremy and Clowance’s romantic lives. And I thought Richard Laxton did a pretty solid job in maintaining the movie’s pacing and conveying Graham’s story to the screen. The author had seemed satisfied with movie. Mind you, his attitude got him into trouble with his saga’s many fans. But I could see why he enjoyed the movie overall. It really is not that bad. Aside from the first twenty or thirty minutes, I found it easy to follow and rather enjoyable.

Some people blame the casting of John Bowe and Mel Martin as Ross and Demelza Polark for the ratings failure of“POLDARK”. This is probably the truth. Many viewers simply refused to accept the two performers as the leads . . . especially since the producers had originally considered Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees from the 1975-1977 series to reprise their roles. They also seemed displeased with Michael Atwell as George Warleggan, even though Ralph Bates, who had originated the role, had passed away five years before this movie aired on television.

I have to be honest. I did not have a problem with Bowe, Martin and Atwell. Both Bowe and Martin gave solid performances as Ross and Demelza Poldark. But to be honest, the screenplay did not allow their characters to be showcased that much during the first two-thirds of the movie. By the time the pair’s characters were finally reunited for the movie’s last half hour, both Bowe and Martin were allowed to strut their stuff . . . so to speak. This was especially true for Bowe in one scene with Michael Atwell. I certainly had no problems with Atwell’s portrayal of Ross Poldark’s long-time rival, George Warleggan. I found it very intense and complex. Atwell did not portray his character was a one-dimensional villain – especially in scenes that featured Warleggan’s continuing grief over his late wife Elizabth Chynoweth Poldark Warleggan, who had died eleven years ago; or his rather odd courtship of the slightly intimidating Lady Harriet.

The production also featured first-rate performances from Nicholas Gleaves as Stephen Carrington, Hans Matheson as Ben Carter, Amanda Ryan as Cuby Trevanion and Gabrielle Lloyd as Jane Gimlet. But aside from Atwell, I felt the other two best performances in the production came from Kelly Reilly, who gave a very complex performance as Ross and Demelza’s daughter Clowance; and Ioan Gruffudd as the couple’s son, Jeremy. It was interesting to see both Reilly and Gruffudd when they were both near the beginning of their careers. Even then, the pair displayed the talent and screen presence that eventually made them well known.

In the end, I realized that I could not share the antagonism toward the 1996 televised movie “POLDARK”. Yes, I had a problem with the vague storytelling in the movie’s first half hour. And this adaptation of Winston Graham’s 1981 novel should have stretched out beyond a 102 minute television movie. But I still enjoyed it in the end, thanks to some exceptional and solid performances from the cast and the energy that seemed to infuse the subplots after that first thirty minutes. I would consider it a worthy addition to my collection of televised adaptations of Graham’s novels.

Five Favorite Episodes of “TURN: WASHINGTON’S SPIES” Season One (2014)

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Below is a list of my five favorite episodes from Season One of AMC” “TURN: WASHINGTON’S SPIES”. Created by Craig Silverstein, the series stars Jamie Bell:

 

FIVE FAVORITE EPISODES OF “TURN: WASHINGTON’S SPIES” SEASON ONE (2014)

1 - 1.08 Challenge

1. (1.08) “Challenge” – Against the wishes of Abraham “Abe” Woodhull, one of the Culper Ring spies, fellow spy Anna Strong earches for enemy intelligence at an exclusive gentleman’s party hosted by British spymaster Major John Andre.

2 - 1.10 The Battle of Setauket

2. (1.10) “The Battle of Setauket” – Mary Woodhull discovers that Abe is a rebel spy. Other members of the spy ring, Major Benjamin Tallmadge and Lieutenant Caleb Brewster, lead a raid on the Long Island community, Setauket, to save the local Patriot families.

3 - 1.05 Epiphany

3. (1.05) “Epiphany” – During the 1776 Christmas holidays, Caleb and Ben follow mysterious orders, while General George Washington’s army crosses into enemy territory in New Jersey. Meanwhile, one of Anna’s recently freed slaves, Abigail, agrees to spy for the Rebels after she is assigned to work for Major Andre, if the former would agree to look after her son Cicero.

4 - 1.09 Against Thy Neighbor

4. (1.09) “Against Thy Neighbor” – British Army Captain John Graves Simcoe (at least the fictional version) ignites a political witch-hunt to weed out rebel conspirators in Setauket. General Washington assigns Ben to a secret mission.

5 - 1.06 Mr. Culpepper

5. (1.06) “Mr. Culpeper” – En route to New York, Abe is ambushed by a desperate patriot. Washington charges Ben with the task of creating America’s first official spy ring.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1870s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1870s:

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1870s

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1. “The Age of Innocence” (1993) – Martin Scorcese directed this exquisite adaptation of Edith Wharton’s award winning 1920 novel about a love triangle within New York’s high society during the Gilded Age. Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfieffer and Oscar nominee Winona Ryder starred.

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2. “The Big Country” (1958) – William Wyler directed this colorful adaptation of Donald Hamilton’s 1958 novel, “Ambush at Blanco Canyon”. The movie starred Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker and Charlton Heston.

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3. “True Grit” (2010) – Ethan and Joel Coen wrote and directed this excellent adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel about a fourteen year-old girl’s desire for retribution against her father’s killer. Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Hattie Steinfeld starred.

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4. “Far From the Madding Crowd” (2015) – Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Tom Sturridge and Michael Sheen starred in this well done adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel about a young Victorian woman who attracts three different suitors. Thomas Vinterberg directed.

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5. “Around the World in 80 Days” (1956) – Mike Todd produced this Oscar winning adaptation of Jules Verne’s 1873 novel about a Victorian gentleman who makes a bet that he can travel around the world in 80 days. Directed by Michael Anderson and John Farrow, the movie starred David Niven, Cantiflas, Shirley MacLaine and Robert Newton.

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6. “Stardust” (2007) – Matthew Vaughn co-wrote and directed this adaptation of Neil Gaman’s 1996 fantasy novel. The movie starred Charlie Cox, Claire Danes and Michelle Pfieffer.

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7. “Fort Apache” (1948) – John Ford directed this loose adaptation of James Warner Bellah’s 1947 Western short story called“Massacre”. The movie starred John Wayne, Henry Fonda, John Agar and Shirley Temple.

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8. “Zulu Dawn” (1979) – Burt Lancaster, Simon Ward and Peter O’Toole starred in this depiction of the historical Battle of Isandlwana between British and Zulu forces in 1879 South Africa. Douglas Hickox directed.

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9. “Young Guns” (1988) – Emilio Estevez, Kiefer Sutherland and Lou Diamond Phillips starred in this cinematic account of Billy the Kid’s experiences during the Lincoln County War. The movie was directed by Christopher Cain.

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10. “Cowboys & Aliens” (2011) – Jon Favreau directed this adaptation of Scott Mitchell Rosenberg’s 2006 graphic novel about an alien invasion in 1870s New Mexico Territory. The movie starred Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and Olivia Wilde.

“RIVER LADY” (1948) Review

“RIVER LADY” (1948) Review

While perusing the Internet on the career of actress Yvonne De Carlo, I noticed that she made a handful of conventional costume pictures for Universal Pictures, after she had signed a long-term contract with them in 1946. One of those films was the 1948 movie, “RIVER LADY”.

Set in the upper Mississippi River Valley during the decade after the Civil War, “RIVER LADY” is an adaptation of Frank Waters and Houston Branch’s 1942 novel. It told the story of a conflict between the citizens of a Minnesota mill town, the loggers who worked downstream and the lumber mill owners. The representative of a local lumber syndicate named Bauvais wants to purchase a struggling lumber mill from its owner, H.L. Morrison. But the latter refuses to sell. However, the owner of a gambling riverboat owner named Sequin manages to purchase the mill in order to provide a reputable job for her boyfriend, Dan Corrigan, a lumberjack whom she loves. However, Sequin has a rival in Morrison’s only daughter, Stephanie. When the latter learns about Dan and Sequin’s engagement, she exposes Sequin’s purchase of the Morrison mill. Dan becomes enraged when he realizes that his fiancee has manipulated his life and in a drunken fit, rejects the riverboat owner and marries Stephanie. Business sparks eventually ignite between a vengeful Dan and an angry Sequin, who has aligned herself with the mercenary Bauvais.

What can I say about “RIVER LADY”? I have seen my share of minor period dramas from “Golden Age of Hollywood” over the years. Some of them have been decent. Some of them have been surprisingly pretty good. Others have been . . . well, a waste of my time. “RIVER LADY” was a waste of my time.

Did “RIVER LADY” have the potential to be a pretty good movie? I do not think so. Frankly, I found it difficult to summon the energy to get excited over a messy rivalry involving the lumber business in 1870s Minnesota. And I am confused over Sequin’s role in this story. She purchased part of the Morrison lumber mill for lumberjack Dan Corrigan. But once he had dumped her, why was there no conflict between her and Morrison over Dan’s role in the business? Instead, she sat back and watched him use the business to engage in a conflict with her other business partner, Bauvais. Would it have not been easier if the writers could have found another reason for Sequin and Dan’s breakup? And why would Dan be so upset over Sequin manipulating him into a major position with the Morrison lumber mill . . . and not express any anger over the ugly manner in which Stephanie Morrison had interfered in his upcoming marriage? Odd.

Then again, I also realized that I did not really like most of the characters in this movie. To be honest, I just did not find them that interesting. Except for two . . . namely Sequin and Bauvais. I would never regard either of them as nice, but Yvonne De Carlo and Dan Duryea did such excellent jobs in making both of them interesting and dynamic that it seemed a pity that neither ended the movie on a happy note. Rod Cameron and Helena Carter gave solid performances as lumberjack-turned-businessman Dan Corrigan and his bride, Stephanie Morrison. But to be honest, their performances seemed like a walk in the park in compare to DeCarlo and Duryea. And as a leading man, Cameron did not exactly rock my world . . . if you know what I mean. The movie also featured solid performances from John McIntire, Lloyd Gough, Florence Bates and Anita Turner. Only Turner really impressed me, for I found her portrayal of the Morrisons’ maid Esther rather witty. However, none of the cast members were not helped by D.D. Beauchamp and William Bowers’ dialogue, which seemed more appropriate for a 1940s crime melodrama, instead of a film set in the mid-to-late 1800s.

I have no idea on whether “RIVER LADY” was a “B” movie or not. It feels like a “B” movie, despite having a cast that featured the likes of De Carlo, Duryea, Cameron and McIntire. As a frequent visitor of the Universal Studios Hollywood Theme Park, it is pretty obvious that a good deal of the movie was filmed on that studio’s back lot. And although the costumes designed by Yvonne Wood struck me as pretty colorful, a bit too much of late 1940s fashion seemed to have crept into some of De Carlo and Carter’s 1870s costumes.

What else can I say about “RIVER LADY”? Despite first-rate performances from Yvonne De Carlo and Dan Duryea, along with the colorful production; this is a movie that I doubt I would be interested in watching again. Once was enough.

“STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” (2015) Review

“STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” (2015) Review

During the fall of 2012, the media and many film fans were stunned by news of filmmaker George Lucas’ sale of his production company, Lucasfilm, to the Walt Disney Company. I was flabbergasted. However, this sale led to Disney’s plans to continue Lucas’ “STAR WARS” movie saga with future releases, television shows, novels and comic stories.

One result of this sale proved to be Disney’s new film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS”. The first of three movies for the franchise’ “Sequel Trilogy”, “THE FORCE AWAKENS” is set some thirty years after the 1983 film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI”. Some time after the Galactic Empire’s major defeat at the Battle of Endor, remnants of this political force formed a new galactic power known as the First Order under the mysterious leadership of Snoke, a Force user. Within less than thirty years, the First Order has managed to take possession of new worlds and become a powerful force within the galaxy. Although appalled by the First Order’s development, the New Republic government decided to do nothing.

Former Rebel Alliance leader, Leia Organa, managed to form a military organization from the rank and file of the New Republic’s armed forces called the Resistance. Believing that the Resistance need more help, Leia recruited a pilot named Commander Poe Dameron to acquire find a segment of a star map that was in the possession of the legendary explorer Lor San Tekka on Jakku. This map would lead to the whereabouts of her brother, Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, who had disappeared into exile following the destruction of a new generation of Jedi under his tutelage. Unfortunately, the village where Tekka lived was captured by a force of First Order stormtroopers under the command of one of Supreme Leader Snoke’s enforcers, a Force user named Kylo Ren. Ren ordered his troops to kill Tekka and the other villagers, while he took Dameron captive. Fortunately, the Resistance pilot had hidden the map inside his astromech droid, BB-8, which managed to escape. Even more fortunately, Dameron was rescued by a stormtrooper designated FN-2187, who wanted to use Dameron to help him defect from the First Order.

Finn and Dameron stole a TIE fighter plane and returned to Jakku to find BB-8. However, the plane crashed. FN-2187 – renamed “Finn” – by the pilot, encountered a desert scavenger named Rey, who had already found BB-8. Realizing that the First Order was after the droid, the pair made their escape from Jakku aboard the old freighter, the Millenium Falcon, and set out to find the Resistance forces. Along the way, Finn and Rey attempted to evade the pursuing Kylo Ren and met the Falcon’s former owner, Han Solo and the latter’s companion Chewbacca; who ended up helping them with their goal.

Many critics and moviegoers hailed “THE FORCE AWAKENS” as a return to what the franchise used to be back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. And not surprisingly, it became the top earning movie released in 2015. Lucasfilm, now headed by producer Kathleen Kennedy (who had worked with Lucas and Steven Spielberg for years), turned to producer-director J.J. Abrams to helm this first film. Screenwriter Michael Arndt was originally hired to write the movie’s script, following Lucas’ treatment. But Lucasfilm and Abrams decided to scrap both him and the treatment. Then Abrams and filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan created their own screenplay . . . one that obviously pleased a lot of people. How do I feel about the movie? Well, like many films, “THE FORCE AWAKENS” has both good and bad qualities. I am going to start what I liked about it.

For me, the stars of “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” are actors John Boyega, who portrayed Finn; and Harrison Ford, who reprised his role as Han Solo. Their performances gave this movie an energy that could not be matched by the rest of cast. In the case of Ford, this movie featured his best performance in the four “STAR WARS” he has appeared in. And of the new cast members for the Sequel Trilogy, I feel that Boyega has quickly emerged as the best of the bunch, thanks to his energetic and humorous portrayal of a very complex character. Actually, Finn reminded me of a younger Han Solo. Perhaps that is why he clicked so well with the veteran actor. Come to think of it, he also managed to click well with the other two new leads – Daisy Ridley and Oscar Isaac. My only problem with Finn is that his character sometimes came off as some doofus who seemed to stumble his way through life. Two other performances in “THE FORCE AWAKENS” that really impressed me came from Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, who served as the voice and movements behind a new character called Maz Kanata. And Peter Mayhew, like Ford, was marvelous as always as the aging Wookie, Chewbacca. In a way, I found this miraculous for both Ford and Mayhew, considering that both suffered health issues during the movie’s production. What else did I like about “THE FORCE AWAKENS”? Well to my utter surprise, I enjoyed the new astromech droid, BB-8. When I had first saw it in some of the movie’s trailers, I had dismissed it as a second-rate version of R2-D2 and C3-P0. I was very surprised at how quickly I grew fond of the character.

There were other aspects of “THE FORCE AWAKENS” that I enjoyed, as well. If I have to brutally frank, I did not find most of Dan Mindel’s photography that impressive. But there were a few scenes that did impress me. I found Britain’s Lake District, which served as Takodana, very beautiful, thanks to Mindel’s photography. I was also impressed by his photography of United Arab Emirates and New Mexico, which served as the planet of Jakku. Mandel even managed to include an iconic shot, as shown below:

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One last aspect of the movie that impressed me was Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey’s editing. I thought they did a pretty damn good job in the sequence that featured Finn and Rey’s escape from Jakku aboard the stolen Millennium Falcon. But I found their work in the sequence in which the pair, Han Solo and Chewbacca get into conflict with pirates gangs who want to settle a score with Han, while three Rathtar creatures run rampant throughout the Falcon and Han’s other ship . . . to be very impressive. And it lacked the taint of confusion which has hampered many action scenes in the past.

Did I have any problems with “THE FORCE AWAKENS”? Unfortunately, yes. A lot of problems. I read somewhere that Lucasfilm/Disney had originally hired Michael Arndt to write the movie’s screenplay, but in the end, Kathleen Kennedy and J.J. Abrams rejected it. Abrams recruited Lawrence Kasdan, an old Lucasfilm veteran to rewrite the script and the result is what ended on the movie screens. And honestly . . . I was not impressed. Not by a long shot. The main problem I had with “THE FORCE AWAKENS” is that it shared too many plot points and characterizations with the first film in the franchise, 1977’s “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE”. Hell, Abrams and Kasdan managed to borrow a bit from 1980’s “STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” and the Prequel movies. It is one thing to lift certain aspects of from other works of art and even history – especially in the science-fiction/fantasy genre. It is another to literally borrow from another movie . . . within the same movie franchise. Just to verify my complaint, I had come across an Entertainment Weekly article that listed eighteen similarties between “THE FORCE AWAKENS”and “A NEW HOPE” that included:

*A droid carrying valuable information who finds himself on a desolate desert planet
*A Force-sensitive, masked, and darkly clothed antagonist who arrives on the scene shortly after the information is handed off, looking for the droid
*A lonely, Force-strong desert dweller who dreams of more
*A cruel military officer who holds a comparable level of authority to his Force-sensitive, masked, and darkly clothed colleague
*A massive spherical weapon that’s used to destroy a planet
*A coordinated aerial attack on the massive spherical weapon that’s monitored from a control room by Leia

Six similarities between the two movies strike me as disturbing. Eighteen similarities seem utterly ridiculous to me. Even worse, I managed to come up with four similarities between this movie and “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”. The masked enforcer is revealed to be a member of the Skywalker family, the heroes end up on an ice planet, the roguish protagonist is left in dire straits by the end of the movie and the potential Force user meets an aging Jedi master for new lessons. J.J. Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy and the Disney Studios might as well stop protesting and admit that their new blockbuster reeks of unoriginality and plagiarism.

Another problem I had with “THE FORCE AWAKENS” proved to be characterization. I had no problem with the idea of characters from the saga’s previous trilogies making an appearance. I had a problem with the new characters being a rehash of other characters – like our desert future acolyte Rey being a remake of the young Luke Skywalker; the First One enforcer Kylo Ren aka Ben Solo being another Anakin Skywalker; Resistance pilot Poe Dameron being another Leia Organa (but without the caustic wit); former stormtrooper Finn being another Han Solo; Supreme Leader Snoke is another Chancellor/Emperor Palpatine; and General Hux is another Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin (without the presence). Actually, this video clip from You Tube/Dorkly.com pretty much said it all. The similarities between the saga’s characters strikes me as another example of the lack of originality in this movie.

But some of the characters proved to be very problematic for the movie’s plot. One of the biggest problems proved to be the character of Rey. As a woman, I found it satisfying that a leading STAR WARS character is not only a Force user, but a young woman. Unfortunately, Abrams and Kasdan took this too far by nearly portraying Rey as a borderline Mary Sue. Well, Lucas nearly transformed Luke Skywalker into a Gary Stu (same thing, male version) – especially in the last half hour of “A NEW HOPE” and the first hour of “RETURN OF THE JEDI”. But with Rey, Abrams and Kasdan took it too far. Using her strong connection to the Force as an excuse, they allowed Rey to become a talented pilot who could rival Han Solo and Anakin Skywalker, easily learn how to utilize the Jedi Mind Trick and defeat an experienced Force user with a lightsaber without any training. Without real any experience or training whatsoever. By the way, that last achievement really rubbed me the wrong way. I mean . . . what the hell? What is she going to do in the franchise’s next movie? Walk on water? Now . . . Daisy Ridley gave a nice performance as Rey. But she failed to knock my socks off. Her performance was not enough for me to overlook the ridiculous level of skills that her character had accomplished.

Equally problematic for me proved to be the Kylo Ren character, who turned out to be Han and Leia’s only son, Ben Solo. According to the movie, he was one of Luke’s padawan learners, before he made the decision to embrace evil, kill of Luke’s other padawans and become an enforcer for the First Order. Why? I have not the foggiest idea. “THE FORCE AWAKENS” made it clear that he seemed to worship his grandfather’s role as a Sith Lord. I can only assume that either the next movie or “EPISODE IX” will reveal the reason behind young Ben’s embrace of evil. I hope so. Because the reasoning presented in this film really sucks. It sucks just as much as Ren’s man child behavior. You know, I could have stomach this behavior if he had been around the same age as his grandfather in the Prequel Trilogy’s second and third movies. But Kylo Ren is pushing thirty in this film. He strikes me as too old to be engaging in childish temper tantrums. I can only assume that contrary to Han’s “He has a bit of Vader in him” comment, Kylo Ren is more a chip off the old block – namely his dad, who had behaved like a man child in the 1977-83 films. And why did Han and Leia name their son after Obi-Wan Kenobi, who used the name “Ben” during his years of exile on Tatooine? Leia never knew him . . . not personally. And Han never really clicked with Obi-Wan on an emotional level. So, why did they name him after the long deceased Jedi Master? As for Adam Driver, he gave a decent performance, but honestly . . . it was not enough for me to be fascinated by his character. It was just . . . decent.

Leia Organa seemed to be a ghost of her former self, thanks to Carrie Fisher. God bless Fisher, she tried. She really did. Abrams and Kasdan even gave her a few witty lines. But . . . Fisher’s performance reminded me of the one she gave in“RETURN OF THE JEDI” . . . lacking in any real fire. And I was disturbed by one scene in which Leia rushed forward to hug Rey, following the latter’s return from the First One’s Starkiller Base. Why did Leia ignore Chewbacca, who must have been torn up over Han’s death? Why did Chewie ignore her? Poe Dameron proved to be a real problem. One, he was not an interesting character to me. Frankly, I found him rather bland. And considering that Oscar Isaac portrayed the character, I found myself feeling very disappointed. A talented actor like him deserved a better role than this. Also, why did Poe leave Jakku and returned to the Resistance’s base? His mission was to acquire information leading to Luke Skywalker’s whereabouts . . . information that he had stored in his BB-8 droid before the First Force appeared at that Jakku village. After Finn had rescued him from Kylo Ren and the First Force warship, Poe insisted that they return to Jakku, so he could find BB-8. What did he do after his and Finn’s TIE fighter crashed on the planet? Poe walked away from the crash, found transport off the planet and returned to his Resistance base. Not once did he bother to finish his mission by searching for BB-8. What the fuck? He went through all that bother to drag Finn back to Jakku and failed to hang around long enough to find BB-8? SLOPPY!! As for Mark Hamill . . . why was he even in this movie? He appeared in the movie’s last scene without speaking one word of dialogue. What a waste of time!

There were other scenes that rubbed me the wrong way. Critics made a big deal over the Nazi-like speech that General Hux gave the First Order troops on the Starkiller Base, swooning over the idea of Nazi metaphors in a “STAR WARS” movie. Big deal. There have been Nazi metaphors in the franchise’s movies since the first movie in 1977. Only Lucas did not resort to a ham fisted speech, similar to the one given by actor Domhnall Gleeson. I also found Leia’s little military conference rather laughable. She did not confer with a handful of military leaders. Instead, she seemed to be conferring with anyone – commanders, pilots, etc. – who seemed to have made their way to her table. It was like watching a STAR WARS version of a town meeting. What the hell? And what was the big deal over the First Order’s search for Luke Skywalker? So what if he was the last Jedi? According to the Lor San Tekka character portrayed by Max von Sydow, there can be no balance in the Force without the Jedi. Really? Since when is the balance of the Force depended on the presence of a religious order that had not been in its prime for over half a century? With Tekka’s comment, Abrams and Kasdan regressed the saga back to the Sunday School morality of “A NEW HOPE”. And could someone please tell me how the lightsaber that Anakin had first constructed following the loss of his first on Geonosis and which Luke had lost during his duel against the former on Bespin, end up in the possession of Maz Kanata on Takodona? How? And why on earth did Abrams and Kasdan thought it necessary to re-introduce it into the saga? Why? It was nothing more than a lightsaber . . . a weapon. There was no need to transform it into some kind of mythologized artifact.

Aside from the colorful photography and editing, I was not that impressed by the movie’s other technical aspects. One, Lucasfilm and Disney allowed both the Resistance and the First Order to use military technology that was last scene in the 1977-83 trilogy. Why? Why did the Resistance and First Order characters wear the uniforms that members of the Rebel Alliance and the Imperial Fleet wore? How cheap is that? And why have the Resistance and the First Order use technology from the same groups? The only new technology I had spotted was the two-seater TIE fighter for the First Order and the lumbering desert vehicle that Rey used on Jakka. Were Kathleen Kennedy and the Disney Studios too cheap to hire someone to create new designs for the military in this film? Or was this another over-the-top attempt to re-create the past of the first trilogy? As for John Williams’ score . . . uh . . . not really impressed. Mind you, I had nothing against it. The score served the movie’s plot rather well. But there was nothing memorable or iconic about it.

I can see why many critics and moviegoers praised “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” as a return to the “magic” of the Original Trilogy. The movie not only utilized many technical aspects of that first trilogy, but also characterization and plot. To be brutally honest, I believe that this new movie had more or less plagiarized the first trilogy – especially “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE”. Many might regard this as something to celebrate. I do not. I regard this “celebration” of the first trilogy as an artistic travesty and a sign of the lack of originality that now seemed to plague Hollywood. From an artistic point of view, I do not believe the Force was with this movie.

 

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R.I.P. Kenny Baker (1934-2016)

 

The UNDERGROUND RAILROAD in Television

Recently, the WGN Network began airing a new series about a group of Georgia slaves who plan and conduct a daring 600 miles escape to freedom in the Northern states called “UNDERGROUND”. However, it is not the first television production about American slaves making a bid for freedom. Below is a list of previous productions that I have seen over the years:

 

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD IN TELEVISION

“A WOMAN CALLED MOSES” (1978) – Cicely Tyson starred in this two-part miniseries adaptation of Marcy Heidish’s 1974 novel about the life of escaped slave-turned Underground Railroad conductor/activist Harriet Tubman during the years before the Civil War. The miniseries’ first half focused on Tubman’s years as a Maryland slave and her escape to freedom in December 1849. The second half focused on her years as a conductor with the Underground Railroad. Paul Wendkos directed.

“THE LIBERATORS” (1987) – Robert Carradine and Larry B. Scott portrayed Virginia-born abolitionist John Fairfield and Bill, the escaped slave of the former’s uncle; who become conductors for the Underground Railroad. After the former helps the latter escape from Virginia, the pair reunite nearly a year later to rescue the relatives of African-American freedmen living in the North. Kenneth Johnson directed.

“RACE TO FREEDOM: THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD” (1994) – Janet Bailey and Courtney B. Vance starred in this cable television movie about a group of slaves who risk their lives to escape from their master’s North Carolina plantation to Canada, following the passage of the Compromise of 1850. Look for the surprise twist at the end. The movie co-starred Glynn Turman, Dawnn Lewis, Michael Riley, Falconer Abraham, and Ron White. Don McBrearty directed.

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“THE JOURNEY OF AUGUST KING” (1995) – Jason Patric and Thandie Newton starred in this adaptation of John Ehle’s 1971 novel about an early 19th century farmer in North Carolina, who finds himself helping a runaway slave, while on his way home from the market. Co-starring Larry Drake and Sam Waterston, the movie was directed by John Duigan.

“CAPTIVE HEART: THE JAMES MINK STORY” (1996) – Lou Gossett Jr. and Kate Nelligan portrayed a Canadian mixed race couple who sought a husband for their only daughter, Mary. The latter ends up marrying a Northern American. Upon their arrival in the United States, he sells her to a Virginian slave dealer and she ends up as a slave in that slave. After Mary manages to send word to her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Mink set out for Virginia to organize a rescue of their daughter with the help of the Underground Railroad. Bruce Pittman directed.

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Four of the productions on this list – “A WOMAN CALLED MOSES”, “RACE TO FREEDOM: THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD”, “THE JOURNEY OF AUGUST KING”, and “CAPTIVE HEART: THE JAMES MINK STORY” can be found on DVD. Only “THE LIBERATORS” has not been released on DVD. In fact, I do not know if it has ever been released on VHS.